Travel: Exploring South-Central Alaska in Custom Tundra Buggies
Wheeling in America's Last Frontier
"Do you know what to do if the Range Rover starts to float down the river?" I asked Jason Beard, of Wasilla, Alaska. He nodded his head as he eyeballed the fast-moving waters we were about to enter. "Roll down the windows and take off your seatbelt." Check. "Go in at an angle motoring upstream, throttling at a steady pace." Got it. And, finally, "Exit the Rover quickly if you need to, pointing your feet downstream for the protection of your head, if you get carried away by the current."
It was at this point I made the lightning-quick decision to exit his bone-stock 1992 Rover riding on 225/17s while I was on terra firma, and call my good friend "Gus" Gustafson to cross back across the Little Nelchina River for me, so I could photograph Beard traversing this glacial river from the top of Gustafson's stout tundra buggy. After all, I had just met Beard a couple hours earlier, and, despite the fact that he's a rabid Camel Trophy fan and has followed this legendary 4WD event over a number of years, I didn't really know him or his driving skills. Plus, memories of floating down a few rivers in a variety of vehicles on off-road adventures around the world began to flood my head.
It was also a great excuse to get some good shots from the buggy, which has tall and aggressive agricultural tires, a fording depth of more than 4 feet, and low-range gearing that could pull a gang of grizzly bears across this remote tundra in south-central Alaska. Beard had pulled out a tow strap, secured it to the front of the Rover, and draped it over the top of his roof rack. Clearly, he was bold and ready to navigate the river, even though it wasn't a part of our original plan.
We had contacted Beard through the Alaska4x4Network.com website and planned to meet him at the jumping-off point for the Eureka off-road trail system, located along the Glenn Highway in an unpopulated area northeast of Anchorage. This trail system offers a network of hundreds of miles of dirt track used year-round by off-roaders who play, camp, and hunt in this region with majestic views in every direction, riding vehicles with low-range gearing, including ATVs and snowmobiles.
At the time, Beard's Range Rover rode on street tires and had no lift (both have been upgraded since), so he planned to join our group for a few hours of wheeling and sightseeing that would end when we reached the first of numerous river crossings. Beard would then head back to higher ground and camp in his vehicle with other wheelers at the trailhead.
Our group included Gustafson, a renowned four-wheeling enthusiast and buggy builder; and his friend Dan West, who is also a back-country specialist. The pair, from Talkeetna, Alaska, took me and Molly Perkins and Billy Brice of Manchester, Vermont, on an overnight camping trip into this remote locale to take in the scenery, see some wildlife, and learn a few 4WD skills in a land that becomes an off-road driving classroom as soon as you leave the pavement. Perkins and Brice love four-wheeling, but their experience had been limited to less challenging trails in the Green Mountain State.
As we began our journey, our last glimpse of civilization was the Eureka Lodge, located along the winding two-lane strip of tarmac that ribbons east-west between Palmer and Glennallen. It offers inexpensive and hearty meals, camping supplies, fuel, and cursory lodging. After filling our bellies and downing the lodge's 25c coffee, we soon found ourselves in the hinterlands, sharing the landscape with thousands of migrating caribou, a grizzly bear or two, and eagles that soared on the wind currents above. We drank in the tundra terrain with its colorful wildflowers, alpine sedges, mosses, lichens, scrub brush, and the utterly gorgeous vistas of the Nelchina Glacier and the mountain ranges that surround this region: the Talkeetnas, Chugach, Wrangells, and the Alaska Range.
By the time we reached the overview that captured the braided collection of rivers weaving through the lowlands and the sliver of track in the far distance leading to our camping spot, Beard had bogged down a few times in deep mud. He had to be snatched forward or back, but had proven his heartiness, and our small group had bonded. As Gustafson pointed far beyond the "little Nell" and the Little and Big Oshetna Rivers, it was obvious Beard wanted to stay the course.
Despite the small rubber underneath the Rover, Beard was successful in navigating crossing after crossing, and I soon gained the confidence to ride shotgun with him. As the day progressed and the water grew deeper, it was time for another lesson. When we reached a series of river crossings of biblical proportions, Gustafson and West ran each crossing to scout out the best line, checking for holes and buried treasure such as rocks, trees, and limbs. Returning for Beard and me, they would position their vehicles upstream and slightly off-angle to each other, blocking the raging current to create a hole for Beard to drive through. The Moses move soon became a choreographed dance and a part of the magic that delighted us as rivers of caribou dodged and weaved in front of us and on the hillsides around us.
Despite setting up our tents when it was still light out, we found our own "night" late in the evening, after a campside meal around Gustafson's hand-welded stove. While Perkins, Brice, and I were daunted by the enormous grizzly tracks threading through our campsite, we were exhausted by the day in the great outdoors and ready to rest so we could push the repeat button for our return trip the next day. Our local friends were unconcerned about sharing this spot with bears that can range up to 1000 pounds. Bears are simply part of the life in Alaska; we all hoped they were more interested in the caribou herd than in us.
As we headed back to the tarmac and the lodge to enjoy another meal and more coffee, we had our blueprint for crossing the rivers. And Beard slipped chains over his tires, making easier going as we caravanned home. It was a classroom none of us would forget, and there would be stories to tell around other campfires for years to come about rivers of caribou, biblical water crossings, and the Moses move.
The Tundra Buggies
Bill Newman, of Eagle River, Alaska, is the spiritual father of the Newman Buggy that spawned a generation of functional vehicles for traveling the wilds of Alaska. Newman, a welder, and his son Ty designed and built a collection of buggy models that ranged from Spartan two-seaters to highly specialized, eight-passenger versions.
Gus Gustafson and Diane Fox, who are now retired after working for the Alaska Public Transit System, built their own two-seater buggies and have made upgrades and improvements over the past two decades. They continue to use them on trips with family and friends, as well as on annual hunts.
On this trip, Gus drove Vince Burke's buggy, dubbed Squatty, because it sits lower than Diane's model. Both vehicles have more than 4 feet of ground clearance. Diane's buggy started with a Chevy Suburban frame, and is set up with a stock 350 engine, Turbo 400, and 205 New Process transfer case; 4-inch lift; a Dana 60 in the rear (70 in the front) with Detroit lockers; hydro-assist steering; Warn winches front and rear; and 21.5 x 16.1 Firestone Field and Road tires. Gus has set up a similar two-seater, but was driving Burke's model, which is similar to Diane's, but started as a Chevy S-10.
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